A tribute to Father John McNeill
by Jim Mitulski
There are a few surviving first generation pioneers in the field of religion and homosexuality: Troy Perry, Freda Smith, Sally Gearhart, William Johnson, and Janie Spahr, to name some. Last week another of those leaders, Father John J. McNeill, 90, died peacefully in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He is survived by his lover and husband of nearly 50 years, Charles Chiarelli, and by countless LGBT people who found freedom from and freedom within the Roman Catholic Church to celebrate their God-given LGBT identity.
You will find many tributes to this great man who was pastor, priest, theologian, therapist, activist, counselor, and leader. The year he was disciplined by the Vatican, and Cardinal Josef Ratzinger (who later became Pope Benedict), he was named grand marshal of the New York City Pride parade. Metropolitan Community Church-San Francisco, the church I served in the Castro for many years, declared him a Living Saint. His greatest achievement was writing the groundbreaking book The Church and the Homosexual , which declared that the sacred character of homosexual relationships should be measured by the same standards as heterosexual relationships, that they were essentially the same, and thus ushered in a new era for how the world saw us.
McNeill blended impeccable training as a theologian and as a psychotherapist and helped bring to an end the tyranny of a worldview that saw us as both sinful and pathological. He used his scientific training and his religious training, his experiences as a pastor and as a therapist to proclaim our goodness. And for this the Roman Catholic Church tried to silence him, ordering McNeill not to speak to gay people or about his theology that embraced our goodness and the healthiness of sexual expression. When he refused to obey them, they ordered the Jesuits to expel him, and they did. He – and we – never left the church. It left us. And it was the best possible thing for us.
McNeill taught us about developing a sense of inner authority, to cultivate our own consciences and that this was healthy and normal. He modeled for us individuating from the church because it was an unhealthy parent. He used his priesthood to emancipate us from religion.
In the 1970s McNeill and the Jesuits of the 98th Street Community in New York City helped us form Dignity for Lesbian and Gay Catholics. We organized underground Masses and we protested at Saint Patrick's Cathedral. I remember those illicit communion services held in apartments, because it was there I learned to love myself as a gay Christian, and I learned to love other men as well. I learned from McNeill to stand up and speak out against authority, which has served me in a lifetime of working in LGBT communities who don't always show the same commitment to ending racism, or sexism, or for expressing solidarity with immigrants as they do to advocating for LGBT equality.
I reached out to some of my friends from those early days in Dignity/NYC and asked them to express how McNeill's life had affected them. Here are a few remembrances:
Gay journalist Andy Humm recalls hearing McNeill speak to a Dignity/NY meeting prior to the publication of his book, when he started his talk by saying, "First of all, no serious moral theologian considers masturbation as sin."
"And an audible group sigh of relief went up in the room – because he had said it was OK," Humm said. "But McNeill wanted to forge a church where the faithful didn't look to the hierarchy for guidance but to each other and to their own consciences."
Joseph Kramer, founder of Ero Spirit Research Institute (http://www.erospirit.ca/education/free-online-education/sex-and-spirit/), said, "I first met John on the Feast of St. Ignatius Loyola at the 98th Street Jesuit residence in NYC, where I had gone to celebrate the founding of the Jesuits. Over the next few years, I experienced first hand his relentless passion for justice and human liberation. He inspired and motivated me and countless others to commit to a life of service. He was a man for others."
Robert John Wolff, of New York City, recalled, "When I left Boston College in spring 1975 a few credits short of a degree, a priest named Tom Oddo ( Paulist, I think!) told me to look up John McNeill. After some meandering I ended up at one of Dignity's Masses and became friends with Bob Carter, Andy Humm, Rob Riley, James Osborne, and dozens of others. John and Bob were co-founders of Dignity. ... The remarkable thing that Bob and John did in their work was show people a way home. By that I mean a way back to the arms of Christ. Dignity gave me hope and solace and consolation during some very unsure, lonely days."
Tom Morris of San Francisco said, "I was a client in John's therapy practice in the 1980s. I was gay and a very conservative, homophobic Catholic. I was afraid to the point of panic at times believing that John was evil, because he contradicted church teaching when he said being gay was not a sin. That was too good to be true; probably what the devil wanted me to think. I thought he was putting my soul in danger.
"Over time, working with John, meeting other gay and lesbian Catholics, I came to accept myself as 100 percent equal to straight people," Morris said. "John was such a cheerleader for LGBT people, trying to impart to us self-love and even pride. I remember how John lit up whenever I told him I was dating someone. He was tickled to know gay sex was part of my life. And he wanted us all in loving relationships. I think his favorite expression was the quote of a saint, I think Iraneus, who stated the greatest glory of God is humans fully alive. I think that full life is exactly what John wanted for me and other gay and lesbian people."
There are many more testimonies about how McNeill changed the church, the world, and many individuals for good. Last week, as the country fawned over Pope Francis, I kept thinking that Francis, a learned Jesuit, could learn from McNeill, expelled from the Jesuits for telling the truth. Then the pope would show more understanding about LGBT people, about women and the gifts they bring to ordained ministry, and to the need to respect women's reproductive choices, and how much more a force for healing and liberation the church would be.
Thank you, John McNeill, for teaching us about conscience, about faithful dissent, about the Holy Spirit, and her power to redeem and reclaim even the church. Thank you for loving Charles Chiarelli openly and for risking all for love. Thank you for taking a chance on God, and on us.
For further reading, viewing:
All of McNeill's original manuscripts, his correspondence with the Vatican regarding his being silenced and later expelled from the Jesuits, transcripts and recordings of speeches, and other original source materials are archived in the John J. McNeill and Charles Chiarelli Gay Liberation Collections at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley (http://www.oac.cdlib.org/findaid/ark:/13030/kt4x0nd25q/entire_text/).
Link to the speeches at the dedication of the archive: http://lifelegacyphotography.com/mccr/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/Tribute-to-John-McNeill.pdf.
Taking a Chance on God is a documentary directed and produced by Brendan Fay (www.takingachanceongod.com).
All of his books are cited on his website, www.johnjmcneill.com. His final book, Sex as God Intended (Lethe Press, 2008) also includes a Festschrift with a dozen tributes by LGBT theologians.
Jim Mitulski has pastored churches in the MCC, the United Church of Christ, the Disciples of Christ, and the Fellowship of Affirming Ministries. He is currently the interim pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church of the Rockies in Denver (www.MCCRockies.org). He can be reached at mailto:email@example.com.